Author Arya Zahedi

Review: Susan Buck-Morss, Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left (Verso, 2003)

The current global crisis has once again brought the questions of global struggle and world revolution into a position of importance. The basic questions posed are whether it is possible to build a “global Left” and how to rethink the idea of universal human liberation, which was the utopia once central to the left, and which has perhaps re-emerged once again. The unity of the world is indeed clearest to us in times of crisis. Susan Buck-Morss’s book on the relationship between critical theory and political Islam is an interesting and important contribution to this discussion, as it attempts to create a dialogue between critical thought in the “west” and that within the Islamic world. In keeping with her previous work on Hegel and the Haitian Revolution, she attempts to resurrect and redeem the idea of universality after it had become a bad word among many in the academic activist milieu. Although the book was published some time ago, its relevance has only increased.

The loss of any conception of human universality, especially as it relates to the political struggle, has affected the understanding of social revolution. Many events have occurred since the publication of the book that demonstrate the importance of returning to the discussion of the world revolution and the universal subject that is supposed to be the agent of this revolution. Events such as the “Arab Spring” and the Iranian “Green Movement,” the riots and strikes against austerity, the unrest in Brazil in the midst of the World Cup qualifiers, Occupy Wall Street, all demonstrate some sort of global shift.

For the past twenty to thirty years, it has been almost an article of faith that any attempt to posit a universal subject should be looked upon with scorn. Indeed the word has been associated with another taboo word, “humanism.” Any advocacy of either one can be attacked for essentialism, Euro-centrism, or Orientalism, at best, and in extreme cases, even totalitarianism. One of the strengths of Buck-Morss’s approach is that she is not satisfied with just positing a universal subject from the past and dismissing the variety of these critiques, particularly that of the Eurocentric conception of the universal subject. She doesn’t just resurrect an old conception of universality; she attempts to point towards a new way of thinking about universality and the promise of human liberation. She attempts to develop an understanding of universality that remains critical of Euro-centrism.

The book carries on a theoretical struggle to understand the negotiation between universality and difference. But while the questions Buck-Morss asks are of great importance, and indeed correct in my opinion, the conclusions she draws and the method she uses to get there are way off the mark.

Can there be a global left?

Her argument also has a definite historical foundation which, she believes, can offer the potential for a more universal and hence more emancipatory left. She highlights the importance of the fact that now, more than ever, we live in a global interconnected world—what she calls “global immanence.” She writes:

Globalization is not new, but global “immanence” is. I use this term to refer to the fact that in our era of global capital, global production, global labor migrations, and global penetration by technologies of communication, there is no spatial outside, no “other” of peoples, territory or environment against which some of us could conveniently define ourselves and, holding ourselves apart, control our fate.[1]

One can assume that what Buck-Morss means by this statement is that the globalization of capitalism and interconnectedness itself is not novel or unique, but the fact that we are all “immanent” or contained within this global interconnected world is something new. It is new that there is no more inside or outside with regard to capitalism. How new or how long this tendency stretches back can be debated, but let’s agree that it is more true today than in the past. This means, and we are still in agreement here, that any struggle that hopes to deal with the problems humanity faces must, like that very global system to which we are all subject, be global in thought and in action.

It is however where she goes after this that the confusion begins. Indeed, she sees the main force of opposition to capitalism in the Middle East in the Islamic movements. Actually, it is more correct to say that she sees the vanguard of critical thought against contemporary modernity in Islamist political theories of a variety of stripes. Either way, one is forced to raise eyebrows. It indeed reflects a fascination among theorists on the left in the “west” towards thinkers who articulate their ideas using religious language. The fact that this exists among many self-proclaimed Marxists is an even more curious occurrence. But there is something to be learned if we examine this further, and perhaps we can point to answers for these very same questions, but ones that lead us down a different path.

Her answer comes from a belief that Islamic political movements and their theoreticians are somehow more authentic than other secular opposition forces. This accusation is more often than not pointed in the direction of Marxism. In some ways it reflects the self-loathing nature of the western, particularly US, academic left. Now whether this is true or not (it is certainly not) we perhaps should go further and scrutinize this search for authenticity. What is it about Islamism that evokes the fascination of theorists? What is it about the “jargon of authenticity” accepted by theorists that causes them to be enamored when they would otherwise be critical of such a discourse? Buck-Morss constantly reiterates that there is a wide diversity among Islamist writers. This is certainly true. There is a world of difference between Ayatollah Khomeini, Ali Shariati, and Abdulkarim Soroush. There are in fact wide differences, among theorists from the same nation, but even more so among those that come from different cultures and historical contexts. There is such variety and diversity that one wonders what use there is in talking as if there is some commonality. As Buck-Morss makes her argument, no matter how many times she says otherwise, there is something she sees as essential and more “grounded” in a discourse coming in a religious language. This is essentializing by default. It takes Islam to be definitive of the political culture of the region. There is absolutely no doubt that Islamism is an integral and important feature of Middle Eastern political culture, just as Christian populism is for the United States or Catholic liberation theology is for Latin America. But that does not make it the most representative.[2]

In many ways this quest for authenticity reflects the residue of the Third Worldist discourse. The ideology of anti-imperialism in Third World guise equated those more exotic and unlike “us” as the more revolutionary force, as the one least tarnished by the virus of capitalist modernity. In particular it was the Third World peasant that really got the romanticism of the western academic left going. While part of this phenomenon is the fetishism of the “other,” we must also remember that this is not unique to our views of the Third World, but is also a feature of all forms of populism. The folksy jargon of praise for the authentic German peasant, who is honorable and works with his hands and who is pure and unsoiled by the cheapness of bourgeois urban life, was an important ideological component of fascism. It is surprising that a theorist who sees her thought rooted in the tradition of the Frankfurt School does not realize this, because one of the theoretical achievements of this tradition was a clear analysis of the cultural and ideological foundations of National Socialism.[3] One aspect of this analysis was the recognition that the “jargon of authenticity” was also reflected in much of the philosophy popular at the time, particularly existentialism. This was the other side of their critique of positivism. Indeed they recognized that both positivism and obscurantism, or irrationalism, were part of the same dialectic of modernity.

If we want to think in postcolonial terms, the other side to the dominant Eurocentric ideology of capitalism consists of ideologies of various Third Worldist stripes, including its greatest expression, Islamist Third Worldism. All the more so, perhaps, because they are not so much different sides of the same coin, as different reflections of the same phenomena, two parts of a dialectical whole if you will. Islamism is Eurocentric because it holds the “west” to be some kind of trans-historical entity. What Buck-Morss fails to recognize is that many of these “Islam-centric models” are Eurocentric. They are Eurocentric because they take “the West” as something with an essential character, one existing as the “other” against which Islamic identity can be posited and recognized. For someone who wants to emphasize “global immanence,” Buck-Morss places too much emphasis on the categories of “within” and “without.”

Third Worldism was an ideology that combined anti-imperialism with populism. The particular variety that developed in the Islamic world was common to both Islamic parties and to many Marxist-Leninist groups. This was rooted in a conception of something essential about the West and, conversely, something essential and authentic about the Islamic, Arab, Iranian, or Eastern worlds, however one’s different views framed this opposition. Perhaps its most sinister effect was to obscure the disagreements differentiating socialism from the politics of the Islamic parties. Because of the focus on western hegemony, those who could prove themselves to be the most anti-imperialist won the hearts of the masses. This disarmed the left during the Iranian Revolution, as it was unable to show that it was more “authentic” than the Islamist factions within the revolution. We live in a different world, as Buck-Morss constantly reminds us, so why return to a tradition that is now defunct? That tradition is as defunct as the Marxist-Leninist groups of the same era. The only difference is their exotic nature, because their references are so foreign to those unfamiliar with the culture. We can think of this as a “politics of despair,” whereby we no longer see any potential for socialist revolution on the horizon, and thus acquiesce before the dominant ideology.

A critical theory of society has as its task the critique of ideology in contemporary society. This does not mean to side with one over the other, or to play mix and match in the marketplace of ideas. It means rather to shatter ideologies, to attempt to demystify a reified and obscure world, all the while knowing that the real critique that changes conditions does not merely take place in the realm of theory, but in the act of changing social relationships. This includes the critique of Marxism as an ideology, as it served as for most of the twentieth century. The greatest weapon against ideology was itself turned into an ideology and a strong one.

We should also ask about the connection between these thinkers to whom Buck-Morss is referring and what they developed into. Of course they are not a monolithic group. But let’s say there is some commonality and common points of critique. This is particularly true in the two places where there is a commonality in terms of similarity and influence, namely in the cases of Egypt and Iran, and in the two thinkers who particularly interest Buck-Morss—on the one hand, Sayyed Qutb, an important thinker in the history of the region and one of the intellectual leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, and on the other hand Ali Shariati, whose ideas shaped many of the youth partaking in the Iranian revolutionary uprising of 1978–79 and whose death, in the months before the revolution, made him into a somewhat mythical figure among Iranian opposition groups. His unique blend of Shia imagery with Third World Marxist slogans was a direct reflection of the time and, one could say, the best reflection of this hybrid ideology, a Third World populism specifically tailored for Iran.

Buck-Morss writes that “there is no universal law of the market that can guarantee us a benevolent future.” Here we come to an important theoretical confusion. There is certainly no law that could “guarantee us a benevolent future,” but perhaps there are laws which, unless altered by human struggle, may bring a tragic future. We need to understand how “laws” are understood in Marxian theory. It is not that laws don’t exist, but rather that they are historical, a product of human creation over time. An important law for Marx, as well as for many of the early critical theorists, was the law of value. The idea or hope was that a revolution would “abolish” the law so that human life could be freed from the tyranny of the commodity-form.

The book points to a perhaps more important question in its attempt to think about where we are and what a future society would mean. We want to move beyond an understanding of universality and world revolution that is grounded in a Eurocentric conception of universal history, and at the same time we want to retain such a universal understanding of history. This is perhaps the central problematic the book points to and its most important contribution is indeed in bringing this problem to light.

There is currently a lack of any normative basis for critique. And this problem reveals itself here. The consequence is then to see all critiques of modernity as the same. What do we mean by capitalism and “communism” in the twenty-first century? What, exactly, are we at least struggling against, if we are not certain what we are fighting for? Going back to this politics of despair, we seem to have lost all vision and basis on which our critique of this society stands. In the hopes of abandoning an ideological understanding of socialism that history demonstrated to be defunct, we have become so eclectic and diluted that there is nothing to differentiate a radical critique of modernity from any critique of modernity.

The thinking exemplified by Buck-Morss’s book is so desperate for some common voice of struggle she wants to grab at any critique of modernity and claim common ground. The cultural difference obscures the reality. Orientalism, like many ideologies, works in ironic and mysterious ways. Our task should not simply be to unite all critiques of modernity into some common hodge-podge to rally around. Our task, or rather the task of a critical theory of society, is to critique modernity, but also to critique the critiques of modernity. This is the critique that can help arm us against ideology rearing its ugly head at times when the struggle reaches a high point. It is precisely during high points of struggle that the critique of ideology is most necessary. It is these various critiques of modernity that will prove dangerous when the time comes for history to finally judge the modern era. It is in these times when it looks as if humans are reshaping history in their own image that ideology will serve to pump life back into capitalism’s veins.

The positive critique of modernity comes in the streets, in the workplaces, communities, and schools; anywhere that people reproduce their daily existence. The positive supersession of capitalist society is not the work of critical theory. Critical theory can only point to the possibilities, but it is in the power of negativity to critique what the obstacles are and will be for the times when the “old mole” reappears. During the struggle against the Shah’s regime, when it reached its climax during the general strike of 1978–79, workers’ councils were formed throughout the country. They properly served as a force of dual power. Then, when the state collapsed, they served as the primary power. These councils were not just in the factories, but in offices, neighborhoods, schools and universities, as well as in the provinces. The ideology of an Islamic populism helped rein in these forces. One should not forget the direct repression of the state, but we should also understand the role that ideology played in obscuring the conflict that was taking place. No one was immune from this understanding of a false sense of “unity.” We should also acknowledge that it was not the “fundamentalists” that began the attack on the popular councils, but the “liberals” of the provisional government, many of whom were associates and friends of the late Dr. Shariati.

In one part of the book, Buck-Morss, using the work of another scholar sympathetic to the Islamist movement in Iran, claims that Ayatollah Khomeini, by not speaking with references to western political concepts, “has managed a triumphal escape from Western hegemony.”[4] But this immediately begs the question: can one escape from Western hegemony by changing the concepts one uses? What does it mean to institute an “autonomous discourse” in a capitalist world? This is an extremely idealist notion if there ever was one. How can one have autonomy from a totally “immanent” world, to use Buck-Morss’s understanding, yet establish an autonomous sphere merely through discourse? This alone can have a very ideological effect, one which has plagued post-colonial theory. It sees capitalism and colonialism with such an emphasis on discourse that it can lead people to the blind alley of thinking that an alteration in the discourse can make for an alteration in the actual relations of power.

What surprises the reader is the virtual absence of any acknowledgement of the actually existing historical left in the Middle East. Buck Morss writes as if there was so little of a left tradition that she really needed to stretch to find common ground with forces in the region. The history of the actually existing left in Iran or Egypt is nowhere to be found. It is conveniently brushed aside. But this seems to be no mere accident, or something that can simply be attributed to ignorance. This seems, rather, more connected to the general disillusionment with anything connected to the left.

Speaking of the left in the region, Buck-Morss’s few passing comments give the impression that the left in the Middle East was nothing but a second-rate impersonation of the left in Europe. This is a common misconception, but one with quite problematic conclusions. One often gets the impression that socialism was also a colonial imposition on the Islamic world, and, even worse, that socialists from those countries were merely parroting the movement in the West. But indeed nothing could be further from the truth. The movement in many of the nations, but especially in those bordering what was the Russia and Central Asia, such as Iran and Turkey, grew in symbiotic relationship with the movement in Russia. The origins of the Communist Party of Iran are closely tied to the development of the Bolshevik party. The socialist movement of Iran, going back even earlier, was born out of migrant Iranian workers who had been employed in the oil fields of Baku, Azerbaijan. Indeed, many workers from the surrounding areas—mostly Muslim lands—had travelled to the Russian Empire, and to Baku in particular, to work on the oil fields, but also in the ports and factories. These workers became involved in the organizing of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party, taking part in the Revolution of 1905. They soon returned to their home countries and used the organizing skills they had learned in organizing in their nascent home industries as well as in establishing socialist parties.

Buck-Morss claims that the secular left in the Middle East carried what she calls an “apologist discourse,”[5] meaning that its general outlook was one that was not critical of modernity. It shared the values of a Eurocentric modernity, that was technology-and development-centered, and which also shared the values of secularism and distrust for tradition.

The “apologist discourse” which she accuses the secular left in the Middle East of having was by no means unique to it but was also shared by many currents within the Islamist movement. Perhaps this hostility to Marxism, evident in the works of Islamist scholars, is not rooted in a critique of developmentalism or authoritarianism, as Buck-Morss suggests, but has a different source; one to which the history of Europe in the twentieth century is no stranger.

This is an historical lesson that needs to be remembered. There are critiques of modernity that point towards a revolutionary supersession of existing conditions and there is a critique of modernity that serves reaction. Fascism also carried with it a definite critique of modernity, one that stressed the authenticity of the pure German working man against the decadence of a modern bourgeois society serving only money instead of the values of pride, honor, and valor. There is also the critique of technology that existed in Europe in the mid-twentieth century, reflecting a reactionary fear of society, which has dissolved in the face of capitalist modernity. And that term, capitalist modernity, is precisely the issue.

How we understand the past and the present directly affects how we understand the future as well as the struggle to get there. This is why not all critiques are on equal footing. Some reflect the condition of modernity better than others. Are we to understand our condition as one of good versus evil, or as one that emphasizes some abstract concept of justice against oppression? What does oppression exactly mean? For some it is the rule of capital over everyday life; for others there are more obscure understandings of the world we live in.

This confusion reflects a worldview that is in many ways the ideological expression of our current era, namely the idea that all ideas and “narratives” stand on equal footing with each other. Since none possesses a final claim to a “truth,” none is truer than any other. One can just pick up and put down any ideas that one feels serve the purpose at the time. And anything can mean anything. Not realized in this confusion is that this is the worldview reflecting contemporary capitalism, the universal exchange of equivalents. One does not have to believe in absolute truths to believe that some understandings of the world are more correct than others. Instead, we get the ongoing confusion among many academics who want to remain within the Marxist fold but who bow to the ideological influence of our “post-modern” period.

Marxist concepts are not just another conceptual apparatus because we feel that they sound better. It is also not because Marx happened to say them. It is because they more correctly reflect the social reality in which we find ourselves. Being historical concepts, they are constantly changing in order to more correctly reflect the social reality and we can and must abandon them if they no longer suffice in reflecting this reality. It therefore makes a difference whether someone sees the main problem as capitalism, as a system that alienates living human labor to reproduce itself, or if one sees the problem as being alienation from our “Islamic roots” and our subjection to “westoxication.” Otherwise, there is nothing separating the communist critique of capitalism from any other.

The book suffers from wanting to have its cake and eat it too. I suppose that all of us are who are attempting to think through the idea of a universal, global social movement in the twenty-first century and are attempting to think through the idea of world revolution with the understanding of the effects of colonialism on history and capitalism. What the book fails to do is to point towards new forms of collective struggle based on the actual struggles that exist. Instead, it points to a way of conceiving struggle that, in the past, reinforced the worst ideological effects of the struggles of the people in the region.

Another negative effect of Buck-Morss’s insistence on the necessity of grounding discourse in some traditional or “authentic” discourse is the limits it places on the scope of the discourse itself. By forcing all discussion of particular social questions faced by the people in the region today to be framed in this very narrow way, it immediately rules out the multiple ways, many not yet imagined, by which people may rethink their lives and how they may see themselves and their place in the world. By insisting on seeing Islamism as the more or even most authentic discourse, we limit the ways in which the right questions can be asked. What of all the activists who choose to articulate their struggles in a discourse other than that of religion? Are they being “apologists”?

Buck-Morss writes: “To accomplish a global critique, however, it is the object criticized that must have priority, not the discursive model.”[6]

Yes, but what if the difference is about what that object is? What if it is the difference that makes for the difference in the discursive model? Is breaking free from western hegemony something that can be achieved through discourse? But we have to think further; if we are in agreement with this statement we must ask another question. If this is indeed the case, why should we then choose to reify the very identities that are the product of the Eurocentric worldview? Buck-Morss constantly reiterates the point that Islamism is not a monolithic entity. True, point taken. But now what? Do we abandon our critique? Indeed, what surprises us is that, for a work of critical theory, how uncritical her work really is.

  1. [1]Buck-Morss, op. cit., p. 93.
  2. [2]One thinks of Hamid Dabashi’s point that Islamism is “integral but not definitive” to the political culture.
  3. [3]See Herbert Marcuse, “The Struggle Against Liberalism in the Totalitarian View of the State,” in Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, Grove Press (1969), pp. 3–42.
  4. [4]Ibid.
  5. [5]Ibid., p.99.
  6. [6]Ibid., p. 99.